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Tribunal at Hart Plaza puts Detroit's leaders 'on trial' for protest response

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Hundreds gathered Saturday afternoon at Hart Plaza to participate in a tribunal to hold Detroit leaders accountable for the police's treatment of protesters in the early days of demonstrations after the death of George Floyd.

The mock trial was held by Detroit Will Breathe, a group that's been organizing protests locally since Floyd's May 25 death while in custody of Minneapolis Police. Event organizer Tristan Taylor said before it started that the idea owes to its 1967 predecessor, but it will not be a repeat.

Tribunal organizer Nakia Wallace, left, cheers as Detroit Will Breathe co-organizer Tristan Taylor addresses the crowd, Saturday, June 20, 2020 in Detroit.

The 1967 iteration, Taylor said, was a full-blown mock trial, with advocates and a judge and a jury. Saturday, he said, was “more of a public hearing.”

“We don’t want to pretend we are a court, because courts are not historically where our people have found justice,” Taylor said.

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Saturday’s rally at Hart Plaza's amphitheater was of a different character than the actions of the previous three weeks.

Most protests started as marches and became rallies. Most took place downtown, but some ventured into the neighborhoods.

Never did a protest start in one place and stay there, until Saturday. The entry row of the amphitheater was reserved for people with medical needs; otherwise, people could sit anywhere, and did, filling the concrete bowl and the grassy knolls around it.

Attendees of a public tribunal in Hart Plaza weren't six feet apart, but the majority did wear maks as they listened to stories about abuses they believe were carried out by the police, Saturday, June 20, 2020 in Detroit.

As the 5 p.m. hour drew near, temperatures approached 90 degrees. Hundreds of people who dawdled in other parts of downtown or Hart Plaza made their way toward the site of the proceedings, any many of them sought out shaded seating areas.

“This is 23 days in the streets,” said Nakia Wallace, another organizer of the tribunal. “The power of this movement has been bold and powerful and courageous.”

A banner on the amphitheater’s east wall said “Get your knee off our necks” in red letters

Wallace said that in the hours to follow, experts would testify on their interactions with Detroit Police Department over the previous 22 days, and footage would be shown.

“You will see police threaten legal observers and beat people who’ve been detained,” Wallace said.

Jay Bass of Detroit addresses the crowd about the abuses he's endured, Saturday, June 20, 2020 in Detroit.

In the first week of protests, Detroit Police Department arrested more than 300 people, a number that briefly included a Detroit News reporter.

Police deployed tear gas several times in the early days, when tensions ran highest and protesters threw bricks, firecrackers and other objects at police and damaged multiple police vehicles.

But over the last few weeks, tensions have calmed, to the point that Mayor Mike Duggan rescinded an 8 p.m. curfew established after the first weekend. No arrest has been reported at a protest in weeks. No storefronts have been vandalized or looted, no property burned. And the mass arrests have ended, too.

"We can't support violence directed at our officers, damage to property, and threats to public safety," Detroit Police Chief James Craig told The News ahead of the tribunal, explaining the police response in the early days. "We could not stand idly by and do nothing. When you have police being attacked, and police vehicles damaged, that's the line."

One officer suffered a concussion while policing the protests, Craig said, while another has had "multiple" leg surgeries for his injuries.

But as the public has calmed, Craig said, so have police. 

"In two weeks, we haven't made one arrest," he said.

Craig said the department encourages people who feel they were treated improperly to file complaints. 

Professor Michael Stauch addresses the crowd during a public tribunal in Hart Plaza to hold city leaders accountable for abuses they believe were carried out by the police, Saturday, June 20, 2020 in Detroit.  Stauch, who teaches at the University of Toledo, was giving a brief history about the police.

"Some have made complaints," Craig said. "Some backed off. Some haven't made themselves available. Some we haven't been able to identify."

Detroit historian Ken Coleman, writing in the Michigan Advance, writes that Saturday's tribunal is a throwback to the summer of 1967, in the wake of the riot that year, but in relation to the Algiers Motel incident, in which three teens were killed by police, and the three white officers accused were exonerated.

That tribunal attracted a crowd of thousands. As Coleman wrote:

On August 30, 1967, more than 2,000 people attended a mock trial carried out at Central United Church of Christ on Detroit’s west side. The site, led by the Rev. Albert B. Cleage Jr., was located about one mile from where the Detroit Rebellion started about one month before. The uprising was largely a Black community response to decades of police harassment and brutality by white cops. 

The 1967 tribunal was the brainchild of civil rights leader H. Rap Brown, who spoke at the Dexter Theater, before a crowd The News estimated at 5,000 people. 

"You should hold a people's tribunal and give them a trial," Brown said. "If they are found guilty — and I don't see how they could be found anything else — the brothers should carry out an execution."

The News' editorial page saw things differently, resorting to bold type for an entire paragraph to make its point, in an editorial called "Now Rap Brown Favors Lynching": 

"But just as the prosecution of a civilian accused of a crime must be bound by the rules of due process, so must be the legal pursuit of an accused in uniform. Without due process we all live in a jungle."

Twitter: @downi75